Limerick Soviet 1919: The Road Not Taken
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost in ‘The Road Not Taken’
The Limerick Soviet captivates people for many reasons. The image of tanks on the streets of Limerick. The idea of a democratically-controlled police force patrolling the streets with red armbands. And of course, the fact the strike committee issued its own currency.
But there is another reason why this story interests people: It stands out like a sore thumb from the usual story we are told about Irish History from 1916 to 1923. Too often this period is presented as a straightforward march from the Easter Rising, to the War of Independence, Treaty, Partition and Civil War. The choice, we are told, was British domination, or rule by Irish bosses backed up by the clergy. The Limerick Soviet speaks to an alternative choice, a ‘Road Not Taken’, the road of the ‘Workers’ Republic’ as James Connolly called it.
In calling for a Workers’ Republic, Connolly wanted a new Ireland that would be free from the domination of not just British imperialism, but also Irish capitalism. He was an internationalist, rather than a nationalist, and argued that the working class must lead the Irish Revolution and bring about a socialist transformation of society and the economy as part of that revolution.
This idea inspired people like Sean Dowling, who was described as the “philosophical begetter of the Limerick Soviet”. Dowling had been a close friend and collaborator of Connolly and was the Limerick organiser of the radical ITGWU trade union in 1919. In this role he organised the Cleeves workers, who were the first to come out on strike, and put the issue of a general strike on the agenda.
More than just Dowling, this was an idea that also had the potential to inspire Protestant workers, such as those who in the years following the Limerick Soviet elected avid socialists in Belfast. It was an idea which perhaps could have united the working class and avoided not just partition and sectarianism but helped to inspire similar revolts in Britain and across Europe.
The Limerick Soviet gave a glimpse of how a Workers Republic could be run. The workers ran things themselves, produced food, policed the streets and ensured fair prices.
This demonstrated a truth Marx had explained long before: Workers don’t need the bosses. They need us. In fact, workers can run society more efficiently and more humanely. In the Bruree Soviet a few years later, when the workers took over the bakery and declared ‘We make bread, not profits’, they managed to cut prices, increase wages and increase production.
Unfortunately, the national leaders of the Trade Unions and Labour Party had a very different vision than Dowling and Connolly. They were people like William O’Brien who had been building a close relationship with the leaders of Sinn Fein, hoping to help them come to power and win a ‘seat at the table’ with them in a new capitalist republic. While Sinn Fein didn’t like the British army, they feared the working class in control even more. When O’Brien talked to the Sinn Fein leaders, he was told to quickly told to wrap up the Soviet. And that is exactly what he did.
Larkinism for the twenty first century
However, the rapid growth of the trade unions in this period provides important lessons for us today.
Between 1917 and 1919 the ITGWU grew in Limerick from a small handful of members to over 3,000 workers. They managed to organise sections of workers other unions had ignored: low paid, precarious and women workers. They did this through ‘Larkinite’ tactics such as solidarity action and defying the law when needed. They got results for workers, which then inspired others to join.
Today, with the re-emergence of precarious employment and two-tier workforces, we need Larkinism once again. The fantastic work organising Deliveroo drivers in London, hospitality workers in Belfast and the historic victory of the Glasgow women’s strike show the way.
Limerick Soviet 2.0
Those who wish to make change today must study history, or be doomed to repeat its mistakes. Across the globe, and here in Ireland, there is a rising movement against inequality, exploitation and oppression.
Once again in these movements we must raise the idea of socialism – workers running society and the economy democratically in our interests, not in the interests of the 1%. Socialists must be at the forefront of organising the unorganised, we must intervene in every struggle against oppression. We must fight for the workers movement to take the lead in these movements, and unify all the oppressed on a socialist programme as only it can.
To do that we must learn the lesson of Limerick. We cannot allow our movements to be lead by the O’Brien’s of today, the conciliators and careerists. The Dowlings of the coming battles cannot be left isolated, and unconnected, we must build revolutionary organisations, linked together into a national and international party, to study our history and develop our theory, and ensure that Limerick Soviet 2.0 succeeds and spreads.
To paraphrase Connolly: Our demands are moderate: we only want the earth!
Cian Prendiville is an activist in Limerick, a member of the Socialist Party and the Limerick Soviet Centenary Committee. He is currently producing a 5-part documentary podcast ‘Bottom Dog – The Story of the Limerick Soviet’, which is available in all podcast apps including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify and others , or just search ‘Bottom Dog’ or ‘Limerick Soviet’. Episodes are also available online at http://limericksoviet.ie/ . The podcast tells the story of the Limerick Soviet through interviews, re-enactments and dramatisation.